Dress-down Friday: Harry Graf Kessler

Harry Graf (Count) Kessler died 75 years ago today. Posterity primarily remembers the worldly and phenomenally well-connected Kessler as the greatest diarist of the Weimar Republic, as well as much of the Wilhelmine era which preceded it. His posthumously-published journals reveal a pan-European vision sensitive to the tumultuous shifts in society, politics and the arts taking place in those years.

But during his lifetime he was regarded as a tastemaker, in literature, theatre, furnishings and – not least – in the refined vision of elegance which he presented to the world. “He attached great importance to dressing well, considering his friend Richard Dehmel’s predilection for gaudy ties to be something of a moral failing,” says Laird McLeod Easton in The Red Count: The Life and Times of Harry Kessler. “He was famous for his impeccable manners and for his elegant bearing, ‘half diplomat, half Prussian officer’ in the words of Nicholas Nabokov.”

Edvard Munch, whom Kessler set up in a studio, recorded his patron’s sophistication in at least two portraits. McLeod Easton describes the subject in the full-length Munch as an “elegant dandy who dispassionately assesses his viewers as if they were works of art themselves, which may or may not meet his standard”.

And Kessler could be withering in his assessment of those who fell short of that standard, regarding even Gabriele d’Annunzio, for instance, as “a fading coffeehouse Don Juan from an Italian small town” sporting a “no longer new, light lilac necktie”.

Harry Graf Kessler maintained his refinement to his final years, which he lived out in exile. He died on the anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s death; like Wilde, he lies in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

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11 comments

  1. Kierkegaard

    Lovely site, a treasure-trove. I have a question, and I see no way to email or message you. I’m looking for the original French version of Montesquiou’s “Rex-Luna; Noctilucid” poem from “Chauve-Souris,” 1907. I’m quoting it in a novel where (yet again) he appears as a character, albeit a minor one. Any joy in pointing me to it?

    • Thanks very much for the comment. As for “Chauve-Souris”, it should be online at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France although their site appeared to be offline when I checked just now. You could try this link.

      • It was down when I went there, as well; alas. I’ve just purchased what claims to the complete poetry of R. de M. in French on Kindle for $1.99; I suspect it will only include a pair of volumes in public domain… I’ll let you know what I get when I open it, if you like. I also enjoyed the articles on Jean Lorrain, whose part I’ll expand a bit– I’d actually already written him into the book, a vampire epic set in Paris in the early 1920s, without realized he’d written M. Phocas. Thanks so much for your prompt reply!

      • Jean Lorrain as a vampire? Intriguing!

      • You’re more than welcome to be a beta-reader. I must warn you, the work is massive; I see it as Proust attempting to rewrite Anne Rice.

        Jean Lorrain will be a minor character; the main ones are a composite of Colette and Suzy Solidor, Josephine Baker, Henri Gauthier-Villars, a Fantomas-like teenaged vampire-hunter, and a gay Maigret. I’ve expanded the role of the Montesquiou-like character, however.

        The Amazon book was a complete rip-off, a 30 page collection of random poems. The link you kindly gave me, started working late last night, though, and I transcribed the quote I needed. Thanks again! 😉

      • Fascinating! It certainly ticks a few boxes. It’s unlikely I’d have time to commit to reading it attentively, but do keep us updated.

  2. And BTW, I read D’Annunzio’s “Innocenze” last night– a shattering, overpowering book muddied by a weak ending. It was obviously one of the novels that inspired Machado D’Assis’ “Dom Casmurro.” Kessler may not not have cared for GD’A personally, but Montesquiou doted on him. seeing him as a superman, a “brutal forceful peasant”. Mussolini modeled himself on him.

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